Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Speaking Injustice.

"Yo no hablo espanol pero yo en entiendo."

This is a phrase I have become fairly familiar with over the last year. Roughly translated it means "I do not speak Spanish but I understand it." I am so familiar because, in the last year, it has passed my lips more often than almost any other Spanish phrase.

It is the one phrase that my Spanish speaking roommate taught me in our year together. It is enough to get people to begin talking to me when I find myself a stranger in their home. To be a stranger who cannot communicate is not a good situation to be in, especially when all you want to do is help the person you're trying to communicate with.

For the longest time, I found my way around this phrase. I found other ways to communicate. Taking on interns added to my work load (doubling the need to ease neighbors whose homes we entered and coaching students simultaneously in the basics of social work) but it allowed me to have a translator when I entered a home where English wasn't spoken and certainly wasn't understood. In these cases, the phrase acted as an endearing excuse. As if to say, I'm sorry I can't speak your language, but please accept this butchered phrase as a sign that I'm trying and know that I do know what you're saying. I would use it as a means of comfort- a plea of sorts to explain to those I wished to relate to that I could understand what they were saying, even if I couldn't verbally respond. Thank goodness for nearly a decade of French and the power of a reassuring smile.

Other times, if I found myself on home visits without an intern, I would turn to neighbors or, on occasion, I would call back to the office in the hopes that our parish secretary would translate for me. Neither of these situations were/are ideal. They are humbling, to say the least, but still when push comes to shove they make sure that people who need assistance were able to be served.

Now having returned to Philadelphia after a bit of a hiatus, I find myself catching up on visits that have piled up over the last month. Yesterday I scheduled fifteen visits in one day. That's a lot and, actually, I didn't schedule them... a volunteer did. I had her mark next to each person she called if they'd be home at the time I'd scheduled and what language they spoke. When she returned from making phone calls with the list, more than half were Spanish speakers. "No problem", I thought to myself, "this volunteer needs hours and I need a translator, I'll just bring her with me." That was the plan.

Then, late in the afternoon, right before I left the office my phone rang. On the other end, my volunteer told me she had forgotten she had an appointment scheduled for today and wouldn't be able to come in. Like I said, that was the plan.

I left the office not quite knowing what the next day would hold. Today, I came back into the office still quite unsure. "Trust," I told myself. That seems to be the frequent order for life at the community center. So I hit the road with trust in mind.

As I began to visit homes, my fears eased as the first few homes marked as 'Spanish-speaking' were bilingual and manageable. Then I came to Luis's house.

I say house and not home for a reason. The building I came up to had no front stairs, instead I hoisted myself inside the shell of a house. Luis was sweeping when I arrived- sweeping the plywood floor, mind you, trying to get rid of as much dust as possible. In fact, the house's interior was only wood. No carpet. No furniture. No drywall. No running water. Only some windows and even those were boarded up. The situation was beyond words, but even if I had words Luis and I wouldn't have been able to communicate.

I tried. I really did. I mixed Spanish, French, and English to try and understand the situation. Luis got frustrated as he tried to reply back in English to my questions. I turned to my famous phrase. Yo no hablo espanol pero yo en entiendo. I understand. A stream of Spanish came back at me and I understood: This place had no heat; Luis had no other place to go; There was only so much I could do.

Without the ability to speak to Luis's concerns and situation, I couldn't do any justice. I don't know if I could have done anything even if we were speaking the same language. Yet, we weren't and in failing to communicate I felt like I was doing an injustice. As a volunteer, I had screeched past with my broken, nearly-nonexistent Spanish; now, as a paid employee, how am I supposed to do my job when, without language, I cannot fully serve those I minister to? And it wasn't just Luis, it was so many that I meet; How much more could be accomplished if I was just able to talk one-on-one with the person across from me- to not just feel their pain but to speak to it.

I left Luis knowing change needed to happen. I left him with a voucher he didn't understand and I left him in a situation that no voucher could fix. It wasn't just Luis though. (His situation was extreme.) It was the recent immigrants I meet and cannot give full attention to because I don't have words. It is the cycle of injustice perpetuated by the inability of one to meet another where they are at, to sacrifice time and self to learn a new language so comfort can be found. Comfort that stems far beyond a phrase or two. 'I understand' can only go so far. At some point it has to be followed up by "and because I truly understand, I find myself more like you. More able to help because I am enriched, challenged, and humbled as I seek justice in a world where injustice seems to pass as the norm."

Poco a poco, estoy aprendiendo.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Live Jesus

I was recently asked to write a Gospel summary. The instructions given to me were as follows:

"In your own words, write a summary of what is important in living as a Christian. This summary pertains to both basic values and concrete ways of living as revealed in the Gospels by the words and actions of Jesus.

Imagine that you are explaining the teachings and example of Jesus to an adult who is interested in Christianity. This person is intelligent and well disposed, but not yet familiar with the Gospels and, therefore, has asked you to write this summary. The length of the summary depends on you, but you should try to give what you consider to be a representative summary of the Gospel message."

I was to write the summary without looking at Scripture and do so in one sitting. The result was two very different pieces. One was much more theological and reflected on what it means to be a Christian, the other a more literal summary that dealt with Christ's life and the challenge it poses to followers. The piece that follow is the latter.

On the table next to my bed stands a small card that reads: "Today's Challenge: Live Jesus."

The card may only be the size of a business card and the challenge it poses only two words, but its message is so much more expansive than that. Those two words, live Jesus, mean so much more.

To live Jesus is to live the Gospel. Living it is no simple task, neither is trying to summarize the message of the Gospels, but I guess it wouldn't be called a challenge otherwise, now would it?

It is today's challenge. A challenge renewed and reawakened each day. The challenge starts in a manger, under the cover of darkness, where God became human. Born to a simple family, Jesus defied all odds and brought the Divine into the everyday, bringing with him hope and a new way of relating to God. To live like this Jesus is to recognize the Divine in our midst.

From there the challenge took form through the life and ministry of Jesus. On the banks of the Jordan, he fulfills the prophesy of his cousin John, who baptizes him with some reticence, as the Spirit falls upon him and Jesus is called forth to the life he will lead unto death. Jesus seems to sense the challenge that lies ahead for him (if he doesn't sense it then, the next forty days in the desert communing with God and being tempted by the Devil surely make the point clear.) Yet when he emerges from the wilderness he invites others into the journey he has already begun.

Calling fisherman to cast out their nets, to have faith, he wrangles a ragtag group of disciples to follow him, to become fishers of men. These followers leave behind their livelihoods to follow this teacher. He leads them for miles on foot, teaching them in word and deed. As they travel they meet people of all sorts- the rich, the poor, women, children, temple officials, prostitutes, tax collectors, and many more. In one way or another he talks with and relates to each one of these people.

In some cases, he challenges them and their way of thinking. He questions the temple official's motives and blind adherence to rules (he heals on the sabbath and replies to the questions of commandments meant to trip him up), a move that does not make him popular by any means. Of the rich, he instructs the rich young man that he might do all the things in the world right but to truly find God he must leave his riches and follow Christ.

In other cases, he uses them as examples. "Be like a child," he instructs his disciples, for to do so is to trust and love purely. "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me." He crafts stories from the Good Samaritan to the Prodigal Son to teach his disciples about how to live, the gifts of faith, and the call/responsibility that comes along with such faith.

This call was lived out even further in the way he welcomed those he met and was welcomed by them, growing in relationship and allowing lessons to be learned, healing to take place, and people to find God. Dining with prostitutes and tax collectors, he was one with them. And on the hillsides, he instructed many, feeding them with loaves and fishes and nourishing their souls by instructing the masses in how they would be blessed for being true to themselves and following God in the Beatitudes.

Through all of this Jesus lived fully and after three years of ministry he went with his disciples to Jerusalem for what would be his Passion, death, and resurrection. Here, the challenge to "live Jesus" takes all the life and teaching from his life and is distilled. Here, to live Jesus is to be the hands of Christ; the hands that break bread and share it with friends, so that all might be fed. Here, to live Jesus is to have the eyes of Christ, eyes that look up from the floor where you kneel to wash the feet of others, humbled in service and love. Here, to live Jesus is to feel the pain of betrayal by friends in the garden and to forgive. Here, to live Jesus is to carry the cross to death. There, on the hillside, Christ died, nailed like a criminal to a cross. To live Jesus is to be present to that.

And finally to live Jesus is to live the Resurrection, Christ's rising from the dead. Returning to share the Good News, as he had before his death, but with a new spirit, one that called those he taught to action in remembrance of all he had taught them. He told the women at his tomb not to weep but to share the hope of his return. He met his terrified followers in an upper room and on the road to Emmaus, where they didn't recognize him, and in each place he brought them joy and promise, bolstering their faith and calling them to more. He was alive and calling them to live too.

And so, the Gospels end. Jesus ascends to heaven and the Holy Spirit is left with his followers. But the Gospel message doesn't stop there. We wake up to it every morning. It stares us in the face. A story lived thousands of years ago, a challenge that is still alive today: live Jesus.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Life in Abundance

"To the East, P.O."

In July, I was blessed to spend time on retreat at St. Mary by-the-Sea in Cape May Point, New Jersey. My time away was full of grace and I returned renewed and refreshed. Whereas I would usually offer words to convey my experience, I offer instead some artistic impressions of my time with God. May these do justice to the abundance I've encountered and reveal what your eyes are meant to see.